In studying the major denominations in America, and understanding of Lutheran doctrine will serve as the basis for comparing the Lutheran position with that of other church denominations.
The name “Lutheran” stems from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, the church reformer of the 1500s, who redirected the Christian Church to the Holy Scriptures as the sole source and authority for doctrine (teaching) and life. The name “Evangelical” frequently precedes the word “Lutheran” in the name of our church and church body. It is derived from the Greek word meaning “Gospel” or “Good News” emphasizing the face that we believe in salvation by grace through faith in the work of Jesus Christ as a gift of God, not by human attempts to personally fulfill the Law.
The Lutheran Church is a Bible church. She receives the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as the only source and standard of doctrine, the sole authority in matters of faith and life. On the authority of Scripture (I Peter 4:11; John 8:31-32; Isaiah 8:20; et. al.) she declares: “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel” (Smalcald Articles, P. II, Article II, 15).
The “symbols” or confessions of the Lutheran Church, which are deemed correct expositions (summary explanations) of the Holy Scriptures, are eight-fold: The three ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Apology (elaboration) of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, and the Formula of Concord (1580). These are bound together in the Book of Concord, which explain the confessional and Scriptural position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Doctrines of the Lutheran Church
God. On the basis of Holy Scriptures the Lutheran Church teaches that there is one true God, the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three distinct persons but of one and the same divine being, equal in nature, power, and majesty (Deut. 6:4; I Cor. 8:4; Col. 2:9, Matt. 28:19). All teachers and communions that deny the doctrine of the Holy Trinity are outside the pale of Biblical Christianity.
Creation. Since no man was present when the world came into existence, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God’s own revelation and record found in God’s book, the Bible. According to it “God created the heavens and the earth,” and this Lutherans believe in the face of all evolutionary theories to the contrary.
Humanity and Sin. The first man was not brutelike nor merely capable of intellectual development, but God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), that is, in true knowledge of God and in perfect righteousness, or holiness.
Sin, the Bible teaches, came into the world by the fall of the first man (Genesis 3). Through this first sin of Adam and Eve all men have lost the original knowledge of God, righteousness, and holiness, and thus all men are sinners already by birth, dead in sins, inclined toward evil, and subject to the wrath of God (Rom. 5:12, 18; Eph. 2:1-3). Furthermore, no sinner can by his own efforts reconcile himself to God and thus obtain eternal life.
Redemption. What the sinner could not do to save himself God in His mercy did for him. The eternal Son of God was made man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ is therefore “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary” – the God-man. As such He redeemed the fallen human race, both fulfilling the divine Law for each individual and suffering and dying in the place of each sinner. Thus God has reconciled the whole sinful world unto Himself (Gal. 4:4-5; 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:18-19), for as true man Jesus could be man’s substitute and as true God He could overcome sin, death, and Satan. He is deity gave His life, suffering, and death redemptive value.
Justification by Faith. In Christ – so the Lutheran Church teaches – there is complete and universal redemption. He has atoned for all the sins of every sinner (2 Cor. 5:19). The forgiveness which Jesus procured for all people He offers to them in the Gospel. Faith created by the power of the Holy Spirit working in, with, and under the message of salvation in Jesus Christ is the hand which receives the forgiveness purchased and won by Christ. By faith the believer takes hold of and makes his own the perfect righteousness which Christ won for all humanity by His perfect obedience and His innocent suffering and death in the sinner’s place (Rom. 3:21 – 4:5; John 17:3; Rom. 10:9; Acts 10:43; John 3:16; Acts 16:31).
By this faith in Christ, through which people obtain forgiveness of sins, is not meant any human effort to fulfill the Law of God after the example of Christ, nor does faith justify inasmuch as it is a work of man but only inasmuch as through the Holy Spirit it lays hold of the grace offered, the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 4:16). The Augsburg Confession declares: “Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by His death has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Romans 3 and 4.” (Article IV)
Conversion. Conversion, or regeneration, consists in this, that a person, having learned from the Law of God that he is a lost and condemned sinner, is turned away from sin and brought back to God through the Gospel, by the working of the Holy Spirit, to faith in the Savior. This faith in Christ is neither wholly nor in the least part the work of man but the work of God’s grace and almighty power alone. (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8; Jer. 31:18)
The Means of Grace. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a sinner to justifying faith in the Savior. “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3). This the Holy Spirit does through the means of grace, the Gospel and the sacraments. The preaching of the Word is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. (Rom. 10:17)
This is the same powerful Word which is connected with water in Baptism and with the bread and the wine in Holy Communion. With it the Holy Spirit also keeps the believer in saving faith (1 Pet. 1:5). “For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.” (A.C., Art. V) The means of grace are the Lord’s delivery system by which the fruits of the cross of Jesus reach and form His Church.
Sanctification and Good Works. Being justified (made right and righteous before God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ), the Christian is now a child of God (Gal. 3:26). He is a new creature through faith in Jesus and the working of God’s Spirit in him (2 Cor. 5:17). As a believer he loves God and his neighbor. He is sanctified (made holy). Faith alone justifies the sinner, but faith is not without fruits, for it immediately brings forth good works (Eph. 2:8-10; Gal. 2:19-21). Faith works and exercises itself in love. (Gal. 5:6)
In this life sanctification is never perfect, but it ought to progress. The Christian regretfully sins daily (I John 1:8), but he strives toward perfection (Phil. 3:12), taking comfort from the fact that in the life eternal he will be perfect.
The Church. Lutherans believe that there is one holy Christian church on earth, the Head of which is Christ. The whole Christian church on earth is gathered, preserved, and governed by Christ through the Gospel. Since it is by faith alone that people become members of the Christian church, the church can be found only where the Word of God is in use.
The Public Ministry. The public ministry is the office by which the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered by order of and in the name of a Christian congregation. Christians are required by divine ordinance to make provision that the Word of God be preached and taught in their midst (local church or congregation) and that the sacraments be administered according to their institution, by persons qualified for such work (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23; 2 Tim. 2:2). Although the office of the ministry is a divine ordinance, it possesses no other power than the power of the Word of God (1 Pet. 4:11; Heb. 13:17; Luke 10:16). A Christian owes obedience to his pastor or teacher only insofar as he proclaims the Word of God.
Church and State. The Lutheran Church in the country of America acknowledges that the church and state have different purposes, but the same origin – God. Although both are ordained by God, their functions must not be confused. They have entirely different aims. Through the church God would save people for heaven. By the state He would maintain external order on earth, “That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:2). The church and the state do not use the same means to gain their ends. The church employs only the Word of God (John 18:11, 36; 2 Cor. 10:4). The state makes laws and uses force and taxation to exact obedience (Rom. 13:4). The state is not a servant to be employed in the interest of the church, and vice versa.
Predestination. The Formula of Concord declares: “The eternal election of God, however, not only foresees and foreknows the salvation of the elect, but through His gracious will and good pleasure in Christ Jesus is also a cause which procures, works, facilitates, and promotes our salvation and whatever pertains thereto; upon it also our salvation is so founded that ‘the gates of hell cannot prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18). ‘Neither shall any man pluck My sheep out of My hand’ (John 10:28).” (Thor. Decl., XI, 8)
God did not, however, elect or predestine any person or number of people to damnation. Also those who are lost have been redeemed by Christ, and God earnestly desires their salvation and offers them salvation in the Gospel (2 Peter 2:1; 1 Tim. 1:4). If God earnestly desires the salvation of all men, why is it that some are saved and others are lost? This mystery Lutherans do not attempt to reconcile. God is not the cause of man’s damnation; man is not the cause of his election to salvation.
The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Life. The Augsburg Confession declares: “Also they [the Lutherans] teach that at the consummation of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise up all the dead; He will give to the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but ungodly men and the devils He will condemn to be tormented without end” (Art. XVII. See Matt. 25; 2 Peter 3; Mark 13:32-37). The Lutheran church rejects the doctrine of a millennium earthly reign of Jesus before the Last Day (A.C. XVII) and of a purgatory. (Smalc. Art., P. II, Art. II, 13)
Practices of the Lutheran Church
Lutheran worship (Divine Service) is both sacramental and sacrificial. In the sacramental parts of the public service God speaks to us and offers to the sinner forgiveness of sin in the absolution, the readings, the sermon, and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace to create and strengthen faith in Christ.
In the sacrificial parts of the service the justified sinner expresses thankfulness to be a child of God for sins forgiven, for life and salvation, and brings personal gifts or sacrifices to God in hymns and prayers and in the offering of his heart and hands. The Lutheran Church strives to augment its public services with the beauty of music, the fine arts, and a Biblically-based liturgy in form and in substance.
Both the Law of God and the Gospel of God are presented in the worship services, Bible Studies, and other aspects of our Christian life together. The Gospel, however, because of its content and power to save, is central and preeminent in Lutheran life together. This is why we are called the Evangelical Lutheran Church.